Who Was that Man?

The title comes from a 1961 hit by Barry Mann called “Who Put The Bomp,” asking the musical question who was responsible for the creation of doo-wop, more or less. The song doesn’t reveal the answer, but I wanted to know something more critical: who was the father of rock and roll? It’s a matter of opinion, certainly, and this little scrap isintended more to make you, the reader, think than to provide a definitive answer. But let’s give it some consideration…

Elvis is the King, sure, a crown he is likely never to lose. From the standpoint of sales, he’s unlikely to be toppled, and his nearest competitors aren’t of the proper generation to challenge his geniture. 

But being the King doesn’t necessarily make one the father; this isn’t the Greek pantheon, after all, it’s America’s native artform. 
Elvis took rock and roll to a new, unsurmountable level, but I don’t think he created it. So who did?  Looking strictly at Elvis’ contemporaries and peers, there are a number of contenders for rock’s ultimate creator. Jerry Lee Lewis would be happy to claim it, but he’s too late and too focused (and probably too country, a term that also fits his labelmates Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins.) 

Little Richard has long claimed the title of Architect of Rock and Roll, but I don’t buy that either. Again, Richard is a primal rocker, but not really the father (or mother.) In that vein, Little Richard learned a lot from the king of New Orleans, Fats Domino. I’m a huge Fats fan, and he definitely was around at the right time, with “The Fat Man” on charts in 1949, but Fats never really changed his style of music and rock and roll never really became Fats Domino music. 

He’s a creator, but not the creator.

Ray Charles was the Genius and arguably the father of soul, but that’s a completely different

sam-phillipsAmong Elvis’ circle, I’m tempted to claim Sam Phillips was the man, but I can’t let myself make the case that a non-musician was truly the father of rock and roll. If W.C. Handy was father of the blues, the father of rock and roll must at least have written some songs.  If we leave Memphis, the only real contemporary contender is Chuck Berry, and that’s a strong case,but Chuck was really a little late to the game and honestly I don’t know that his unique contributions make him more worthy of the title that Bill Haley. The records released with Chuck’s name owe a gigantic debt to Johnnie Johnson, and that starts 
getting sticky. 

We can reach farther back to Louis Jordan, but even Louis himself never claimed to have invented 
rock and roll; he was not a man known for his retiring personality, so if he thought he did the deed, I believe he would have made the case.  So if we gently eliminate all these worthies from the field, who remains? If you’ve seen my work before, you know my choice: Ike Turner. Born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1931, Ike was a multi-instrumentalist, bandleader, songwriter, producer, and talent scout, among other things. 


Music truly was his life, and he was on the scene for the birth of rock and roll in such a way that it’s hard to deny the music wouldn’t have happened without him. Living in Memphis by the early 1950s, Ike worked with B.B. King and other seminal blues figures. He recorded “Rocket 88,” undoubtedly one of the first rock and roll songs, with his saxophonist Jackie Brenston on vocals in 1951. The song was licensed to Cincinnati’s Federal Records, the famous label run by the infamous Syd Nathan. Ike left Memphis just before Sun exploded, but found himself in St. Louis with his Rhythm Kings, snagging better dates than the Johnnie Johnson Trio (which included Chuck Berry.) 

It was in St. Louis that Ike met Annie Mae Bullock, a phenomenal singer who would make him famous and vice versa. Renaming her Tina Turner, Ike’s Revue became one of the 1960s’ biggest acts. But people believe they know that part of the story well enough, and that’s not the story that interests me.  Ike lived for the music. He was a brilliant guitar player, responsible for what Lester Bangs called possibly the greatest rock guitar album ever (look it up—that’s half the fun.) He had an impeccable ear, finding and signing talent, then helping performers achieve their potential. He was a masterful bandleader, envisioning and realizing rock and roll performances at a new level. “Rocket 88” was no fluke: it was a leap forward from the jump blues of the 1940s, with a new paradigm in music. Although it wasn’t overtly about teenagers (by legal definition, since “everybody in the car gonna have a little nip”), this tune of the joy of freedom found in a mobile party set the formula for Chuck Berry’s automotive rhapsodies, Eddie Cochran’s teenage parties, and similar pieces about friends, fun, and freedom from artists from Buddy Holly to Wanda Jackson to Ricky Nelson. 

“Rocket 88” created rock and roll, and Ike Turner created “Rocket 88.” He was The Man.

ike 1 - Copy


Filed under Rod Miller

2 responses to “Who Was that Man?

  1. Deane Aikins

    I would have said Bill Haley. Go figure.

    • Rod Miller

      Like I said, this is just my infopinion. I know Rocko doesn’t agree with the idea of finding a single founder, but to me everything else was “not quite” before Ike, but it certainly was after.

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